It feels strange to play a hockey video game in lieu of an actual NHL season, and even stranger now that it's definite that there will be no 2004-2005 campaign. The strangest thing of all is that this year has seen some of the best hockey games in recent memory, including ESPN NHL 2K5
and Sony's Gretzky NHL 2005
. Add Gretzky NHL
for PSP to the list. It's definitely got its problems, but it's the most visually progressive hockey game ever released for a handheld (we'll probably be saying that about a lot of the upcoming PSP titles), and it comes at a time when hockey fans are really
jonesing for their sport.
Gretzky NHL features the modes you would expect from a next-gen hockey title, but offers limited options within each. The Season mode is pretty bare bones, offering trades and team management, but not much beyond that. Until Franchise modes are incorporated, handheld sports titles will always lag behind their console big brothers.
Outside of that, there is an Exhibition Mode, and the ability to play Online (via a wireless router -- local wireless play is also available for you and your buddies in the apartment). It's pretty easy to get online, but once you're there, the interface is very simple. There isn't much to it apart from seeing who is online and challenging them -- there's only one lobby, with a list of ready-to-play gamers instead of the division set-ups of other online games, and there is a player ranking system for finding players of your skill level.
But how does it play? The short answer is pretty well, with a couple of drawbacks. For the most part, the game is similar to its PS2 predecessor, Gretzky NHL 2005. It's a blend of fast-action and sim-style hockey. For the most part, the game does a good job with flow, and the transition game is exceptionally strong. Setting up a play in the zone is sometimes hard to pull off, but the traditional one-timer is a good way to go.
Of all the controls, shooting feels the best. Like in the PS2 game, a target shows up where the shot is going to go, allowing you a graphical element to help you aim. The controls for shooting are intuitive and smooth. Passing is also handled well. Moving around on the ice takes some getting used to, as movement is restricted to the analog stick. It seems that small movements on this controller don't register as well as big moves, so that might frustrate people who are new to the game.
The analog stick also makes the L trigger a pain in the neck to get at, due to its placement on the handheld. This is more a flaw of the PSP design than of the game, because it's difficult to handle both the analog and the L without resulting in hand cramping - the system is so slim that you have to put a lot of your hand strength into holding the unit. Luckily, Gretzky NHL keeps important functions away from L.
In terms of AI, the game is decent. On offense, players are usually where they're supposed to be, but once in awhile, a forward will wander down-ice and stay in the corner, creating a silly offsides situation that would never happen in the NHL. In addition, some of the blue line logic is fuzzy, and one can get caught in repeated infractions simply because of the computer-handled players.
Luckily, the goalie AI is good. The netminders make some amazing saves in this game, but they don't stop everything. More rebounds would have been welcome, but that seems like one of the ways that the AI keeps scores under control. The game isn't without rebounds, but the keepers here seem to have some pretty magnetic gloves at times.
Graphics hounds will immediately point to the suspect frame rate as a serious detractor, and that is a valid concern. The game does chug at times, especially when setting up a play in the zone. If frame rate issues traditionally bother you, this is not the game for you.
However, if you can get over the slow-down, there are some things to like about the graphics. The platform's capabilities immediately place this game over anything ever released on a handheld, and the presentation makes this little handheld game seem more like the real thing. The look is somewhere between late-PSX and early PS2-quality. The player bodies look and move well, and some of the animations (especially the goalie animations) are pretty advanced. Character models are good, even if in close-up you can tell that the faces a little blurry and some of the texture issues appear to be covered with effects (there is an odd shine effect on the faces that just doesn't work, and they have those infinite-stare Madden eyes).
The game also does a good job of presenting things like an actual hockey telecast. Auto-replays feature multiple camera angles and the ability to switch between them. Manual replays give you full control of the camera angle, speed of replay, where the action is focused, etc. In this way, Gretzky is almost as robust as its console brethren. Between plays, cut scenes of line changes and the scoreboard are in abundance, giving the game a lot of life.
In terms of sound, Sony has gone ahead and cut out the commentary for the handheld edition. While this may not appeal to a lot of people, the experience was actually rather refreshing (and presumably, also helps save battery life). In the first generation of a new platform, commentary usually seems to be repetitive and lacking, anyway, so leaving it out entirely is not a terrible idea.
What makes it easier to stomach is that the other sounds are good. The noise level from the crowd directly relates to the play on the ice, with surges from spectacular shots and saves. The crowd dynamics are not as advanced as they are on some console games, but they do the job. The on-ice sound effects are also well-handled.
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